At the end of October 2007, the Spanish Congress of Deputies passed the Law of Historical Memory, the purpose of which was to come to terms with both the memory and record of the fascist Franco administration that held power from the end of the civil war in 1939 through to his death in 1975.
During that time, more than 200,000 Spaniards died in the repression, either executed following summary trials, or dying in the forced-labour camps. Franco's avowed intention was to exterminate all opposition and he ruthlessly squashed any and every individual and organisation that opposed him. All organisations, political and industrial, were subverted to his rule and those people who resisted were summarily killed.
When Franco's rule came to an end in 1975, there followed an uneasy transition to democracy in which it was collectively, though unofficially, agreed that an assessment of the causes of and responsibilities for the conflict and what followed would be postponed until Spain was stable. Until, that is, democracy was well-established and secure. Only then would it be safe to investigate the actions of the Franco dictatorship without the risk of political instability. The agreement was called pacto del olvido, a Spanish phrase that in this context has no exact translation but means a pact of forgetting, a putting out of mind, a not-mentioning.
Spanish democracy was already strong enough by February 1981 to brush off an attempted coup by Lieutentant-Colonel Antonio Tejero Molina. Although broadcast live on international television when he stormed the Cortes waving a pistol, it degenerated into little more than farce, despite the apparent vacillation of the king.
The period of olvido continued until a few years ago when the younger generation in particular were keen to understand what had taken place. Many of the older generation had relatives who had disappeared and they too wanted to know what had happened. There remain in Spain an estimated 115,000 unmarked graves, the overwhelming majority containing republicans killed by Franco's administration.
The Law of Historical Memory was the legislation which for the first time condemned Franco's regime, removed remaining fascist insignia from public places, recognised the victims on both sides of the civil war, removed much of the Francoist legislation still on the books, and most important, provided the means and support for relatives trying to trace their family members who had disappeared during those times.
This was a controversial bill, not least because there were fears it would open up old wounds and reawaken old hostilities, but as many elderly people testified, the wounds could never heal without coming to terms with what had happened.
Judge Baltasar Garzón, in October 2008, declared the Francoist repression a crime against humanity and ordered the exhumation of nineteen graves near Málaga, one of them believed to contain the remains of Federico García Lorca, one of Spain's foremost poets. Since then, very many more grave sites have been identified and the opening of prison records and state assistance have enabled many relatives to trace their missing family members.
Just this week, in Órgiva in Southern Andalucía, the largest known common grave has been commemorated. It contains over 5000 bodies, all of whom were shot and buried in lime, many while still alive.
In contrast to many other countries in the aftermath of a civil war, there has been no Truth and Reconciliation Commission, no public coming to terms with the events. Instead, the pain and hostility was simply buried on the assumption that with the passing of the generations, time would heal the wounds. To some extent, that has happened – most youngsters have only vague knowledge of the events of the civil war and its aftermath and they've grown up in a democracy.
But all across Spain, not always in the glare of publicity, there are towns exhuming the victims of the war and the repression, to ensure that after all this time, they won't be forgotten after all. Political events of such magnitude leave a mark on the consciousness of a country, pervade its culture, and to some extent affect the reactions and emotions of all its citizens. Even now, there are old people who become scared at the sight of a policeman. For them, the end of olvido and the exhumations are essential parts of recognising their experiences, of acknowledging what they suffered and endured.
There are very many families who will never find their lost relatives, so long ago were the events and so sketchy the records and accounts from those times. But many take comfort simply in the fact that at long last, those events are no longer being forgotten.